BDS Israel Event At Brooklyn College Proceeds Despite Threats to Academic Freedom


Last night I attended a panel discussion on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement at Brooklyn College, featuring Jewish American philosopher Judith Butler and Palestinian commentator and human rights activist Omar Barghouti. The movement seeks to pressure Israel into complying with its obligations under international law and recognizing Palestinian rights by engaging in a targeted campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. The event was mired in controversy as supporters of Israel, led by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, objected to the College’s political science department co-sponsoring the event. Writing in the New York Daily News, Dershowitz labelled the event an “anti-Israel hatefest” and a “violation of academic freedom.”

The controversy surrounding the event should come as no surprise, however. It is simply indicative of the prevailing one-sided attitude toward the Israel-Palestine conflict in the United States today.

In particular, Dershowitz argued that academic departments should not be co-sponsoring events on controversial topics such as BDS that do not involve a balance of opinions. Glenn Greenwald, however, exposed the hypocrisy of this stance, noting that Dershowitz frequently speaks on college campuses unopposed. Not only had he previously spoken at Brooklyn College without opposition, but last February he also spoke, unopposed, at the University of Pennsylvania. There he outlined his opposition to the BDS movement. In a talk co-sponsored by the Penn political science department no less, which had refused to sponsor an event with pro-BDS speakers. So much for Dershowitz’s principled defence of academic freedom. As Mobutu Sese Soko wryly observed, Dershowitz’s argument essentially boils down to saying that “the only legitimate conversation about Israel and Palestine is a conversation with Alan Dershowitz in it.”

The controversy escalated when New York City officials weighed in, demanding that the political science department withdraw its sponsorship, and even threatened to cut off funding to the college if their demands were not met. This represented a brazen attempt to dictate what the college can or cannot do, and constituted a real and dangerous attack on academic freedom. Some officials later backed down from this stance, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that despite his opposition to BDS, the event should be allowed to proceed. Significantly, as Butler pointed out last night, attending the discussion, or even supporting it, does not assume agreement with the movement itself.

The most worrying issue in this whole saga is that the attacks on academic freedom by opponents of the event, supposedly in the name of academic freedom, were not born in a vacuum. Instead they are the inevitable product of an environment in the U.S. characterized by an almost total deference to Israel and heavy-handed attempts to stifle any criticism of it. As Barghouti argued last night, a new McCarthyism is rising across the U.S., and the controversy over the Brooklyn College event is just the latest manifestation.

Just think of Dershowitz’s campaign against Norman Finkelstein. Or of the grilling Chuck Hagel received during his recent defense secretary confirmation hearing for his mildly critical statements about Israel. Or of New York City Councilman Dov Hikind’s campaign to get Brooklyn College to fire adjunct professor Kristofer Petersen-Overton for his alleged pro-Palestine bias. The list goes on.

Almost no attempt is made to engage with the substance of criticisms directed at Israel. Instead they are simply dismissed and their authors are often subjected to personal attacks. Absurd and cynical accusations of anti-Semitism are frequently flung around, the perverse logic essentially being that if you are criticizing Israel, then you must be criticizing Jews, which must mean that you hate them. Yet as Butler stressed, the state of Israel does not represent all Jews, and not all Jews see themselves as represented by the state of Israel. Such accusations not only distract from real instances of anti-Semitism, but more importantly act as a smokescreen, shielding Israel from criticism.  

The BDS movement is not anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli. Rather it is anti-occupation and against the oppressive policies of the Israeli government — an important distinction. But then you wouldn’t know that if you had’t taken the time to read up about the movement or attend the discussion last night. You might have just thought the event was a Hamas rally, as one person outside the event actually claimed this was the case.

Rather than any actual debate, the vast majority of coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the U.S. generally just descends into a spiral of who can prove they love Israel more. Brooklyn College deserves credit for refusing to bow to pressure and threats and for upholding real academic freedom — not simply Dershowitz-style academic freedom.